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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Burning vision

TV film focuses on the people behind church fires

Painful, shocking events often become the inspiration for good art. A current example is the excellent documentary film Forgotten Fires, produced by the Independent Television Service. It will be broadcast on PBS stations Thursday, April 29 (check local listings for time). This spellbinding film tells the story of two African American Baptist churches burned in 1995 by young white men in rural South Carolina.

This isn't a "PC" or "message" film. It's a sensitive, probing look at what caused two youth who grew up with African American friends and neighbors to burn the churches.

Much of the story is told by one of the men, speaking in interviews from prison. Lost and drifting, he and a friend were vulnerable to the Ku Klux Klan, which made inroads into their county the year before these church burnings.

The producers interviewed older Klan members — mostly poor, uneducated whites who blamed African Americans for "taking" jobs. The pastors and members of the two churches also tell their stories. One moving scene focuses on the incarcerated youth receiving a letter of forgiveness and prayer from one of the pastors.

Full of striking images, the work portrays a culture many thought, or hoped, had passed into history. Perhaps the film's most arresting point is the banality and ordinariness of evil.

Forgotten Fires has won honors at several film festivals. Funded primarily by PBS, the project also received support from religious organizations including the National Council of Churches.


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